Audrey listener review: The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Reviewed by Ruth Chambers
Illustration by Poppy Lam for Audrey
Plot overview (warning: contains spoilers - don't open unless you've read the book already!)
The Call of the Wild follows the evolving spirit of a dog of rare character as he travels on a forced journey through the Northlands of America. This dog is Buck. Wily and powerful but magnanimous in nature, he belongs to a US state judge; he is a big cross-breed – a family dog, but free to roam at will over his master’s sunny Californian estate. In the fall of 1897 Buck is kidnapped by traders supplying sled dogs to prospectors heading to Canada’s gold-rush in the Yukon – the “frozen North”, vast in range, perilous and inhospitable in landscape and climate but, despite its fearsome bearing, irresistible to the thousands who come to seek their fortune.
Under the harsh regime of a ‘dog-breaker’ who wields a club to prime his obedience, Buck swiftly learns to curb his defiance and aggression against this new, captive existence. But the beatings do not instil fear in Buck, instead they unlock his cunning and self-reliance: in him, brutality breeds unwilling compliance, but not respect. Forced to live as a draft animal he quickly learns the lore of the dog pack where survival rests on vigilance to the hierarchy of the sled team. His authority in the pack is assured by arousal of deep instincts – social, predatory, and competitive – all employed when he savagely defeats his rival, Spitz, to take his place as lead dog. The North builds Buck’s body too, and his natural power knits with purpose: to be lead dog, to run, and keep on running.
Buck’s fortunes on the Yukon trail ebb and flow with a succession of sled drivers: a seasoned and harsh (but fair) Canadian duo; three novice travellers who over-burden and abuse the dogs; and his last owner, the miner John Thornton, who rescues Buck from these cruel masters and nurses his wounds, and so becomes the object of his fierce devotion. But Buck’s odyssey northwards becomes more than a physical journey: visions of his wolfish ancestors inhabit his dreams while distant howls haunt his days and impel him to roam the forest, killing prey as his appetites dictate.
The challenges of the North and his encounters with wolves in the woods release ancestral, vivifying urges in Buck, and his purpose and being are bound ever closer to a wild existence. When his bond with Thornton is broken by tragedy he runs with the timber wolves for good, his evolution complete – from companion animal to working dog, to free, feral creature. Of all the dogs brought to the North, it is only Buck who has been able to do this, by his inborn strength and his primal wits, which attune him to the call of the wild.
About the book
The Call of the Wild explores how latent, primeval impulses are aroused in a tough, but wholly domesticated, dog, as he is confronted by harsh men and the harsh habitat of the Northlands, in Canada’s 19th Century gold-rush. It is an audacious novel, as are all those other rare works of adult fiction which make an animal their chief protagonist. It is essentially the biography of a creature wrought around that creature’s own perceptions, and in any such work the challenge – one London effectively scales – is to avoid anthropomorphism while creating an ‘inner life’ for an animal that is convincing and rooted in what we know of animal motivation and behaviour (although of course, the true richness of animals’ perceptions are ever closed to us; such an account can only ever be a reflection of how we think they think).
While the novel is not directly narrated by its central canine character (Buck, a St Bernard / collie cross-breed), London’s approach is to inhabit the mind and life of his paragon of dogs and render how he experiences the world. London’s depictions of Buck’s instincts and reactions were no doubt informed by his own close observations of the behaviour of sled-dogs on the gold-rush trails, and they ring true in their interrogation of the bond between mankind and dogs, which in cast can be both dark (brutality securing obedience) and light (care generating cooperation and devotion).
Only an animal, with no will to conquer the land and with only his bodily strengths and senses to call on, could hope to live there ably and freely, as kin to its native creatures.
But in setting Buck on his journey into the wilderness, London’s mission seems to be greater than the ‘simple’ intent to describe animal intelligence and its reaction to an unforgiving environment. In The Call of The Wild, “the North” is mythologised as the proving ground for the survival instincts of both man and dog, and in Buck there is a thriving of the spirit as he confronts the privations and demands of hauling his body through the icy terrain and frozen forests. It is a release of ancestral strength, where mind and body are made keen through physical trials and returned to what they were fitted in prehistory to do; wilderness, London suggests, inevitably prises us from the soft shackles of civilisation, reunites us with our primal nature and so makes us truly human (or in Buck’s case, lupine). It is an idealised arc, and one few formerly civilised creatures, save Buck, might manage, and while he seems to be an archetype of canine vigour – the ‘uber-Husky’ – this idealisation by no means ignores the share of savagery that is part of his more elemental life (it is hard to imagine why The Call of the Wild was ever regarded as a children’s book).
The Call of the Wild is surely London’s response to the thrill he found in the far North, in the austere grandeur of the land. Perhaps he viewed his time there as some sort of invitation to the soul to get on with simply living, a task only met where physicality and instinct combine, with the whole of a man’s being focused on the work of survival. But perhaps he was also conscious that man – particularly civilised man – would always have to bring his devices and inventions to bear against the physical challenge of the North, and maybe this is why his character of choice for the novel was Buck. Only an animal, with no will to conquer the land and with only his bodily strengths and senses to call on, could hope to live there ably and freely, as kin to its native creatures.
About the Audrey experience
The audiobook does justice to London’s writing, which is taut but elegant, grounded and precise, and thus well suited for his gritty tale. As a nice complement to this, the audio music and voicing have a period aesthetic, and the pacing is well measured and the reading clear. The chapter lengths are good for the audio format, being either just under or over half an hour long, which is probably a manageable chunk of listening time for most people.
The Recap function is very helpful as a ‘story refresher’ if leaving long intervals between listening to individual chapters; the brief Character profiles are also handy for this.
The content of the Guide (by Kenneth Brandt), which is chapter-orientated too, is excellent and thought-provoking, with substantial biographical, historical and literary notes, including archive photos and film footage. There are also stimulating discussions around the novel’s themes, style and reception, and how its ideas intersect with contemporary theories of ethics, behavioural science and sustainability.
Illustration by Poppy Lam for Audrey
You can download the Audrey audiobook with guide exclusively on the Audrey app (mobile only).